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Why Anthropomorphism May Be the Key to Better Reptile Husbandry

Not in the mood for reading today? Try listening to the article instead:

As we learn about reptiles and reptile husbandry, it quickly becomes very clear that they are very unlike humans. They are so unlike us, in fact, that the term “reptile” is colloquially used in English to describe a person who is distinctly unlikeable because they lack normal human characteristics.

What makes an animal a reptile? According to taxonomic requirements, they must have:

  • Backbone/spinal column
  • Lungs
  • 3-chambered heart (except for crocodilians)
  • Ectothermic metabolism
  • 4 limbs, or be descended from four-limbed ancestors
  • Dry skin covered in scales
  • Lay eggs to reproduce (although some do give live birth)

According to this list, we see that humans and reptiles actually have a good amount in common, phylogenetically speaking. We both have backbones, lungs, four limbs, and dry skin, and for reptiles that give live birth, we share that as well. Of course, we are still not cold-blooded, do not have scales, have a 4-chambered heart instead of 3, and under no circumstances do we lay eggs. And if we deviate from the generic description of the class Reptilia, there are other differences that can set reptiles apart from modern humans:

  • Are generally anti-social
  • Eat insects or whole animals as a food source
  • Have a preference for live prey
  • Generally don’t use forelimbs as tools
  • Have special lighting and humidity requirements
  • Do not need regular bathing
  • Sleep through the winter

These statements are extremely generalized, and the above is far from a comprehensive list. But you get the idea. For most of you, these differences are a big fat “no, duh”. The important thing here is that these differences mean that the “common sense” which is based on our own experiences and drives our intuitive decision-making doesn’t apply to reptile husbandry.

And right there is the topic of the last article in the 5 Provisions series: anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human needs or characteristics to an animal. I feel it is also relevant to note here that there is also a strange subset of pseudo-anthropomorphism which assigns the characteristics of dogs to reptiles (“scaly puppy”, anyone?).

This can make for a significant learning curve for new owners, whose experience with animals up to this point is usually restricted to humans and other mammals with similar needs, like dogs and cats. In fact, some of the most common beginner mistakes in reptile care can be traced to anthropomorphism in one way or another.

For this reason, anthropomorphism in the reptile hobby is universally considered to be a Bad Thing. After all, reptiles aren’t humans, and when we treat them like humans, we neglect their basic biological needs as reptiles.

The specialized knowledge that it takes to care for reptiles properly becomes a point of pride for many experienced reptile keepers. Their approach to reptile husbandry is practical, straightforward, and no-nonsense. They have trained themselves to rely on science and empirical data because they know they can’t always trust their intuition as humans.

This approach has served the hobby well over the years. But it’s time to acknowledge that anthropomorphism isn’t always a Bad Thing. We can’t keep using it as an excuse to ignore the mounting evidence that reptiles are more intelligent than we give them credit for, have their own emotions, and need more than what we may be currently giving them. In fact, since anthropomorphism has the ability to tap into human empathy, it may be our most powerful tool in advancing the standards of reptile husbandry in the coming decade.

But as the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility” — and we need to be careful about how we use anthropomorphism in the reptile hobby.

Negative Anthropomorphism

Negative Anthropomorphism is usually characterized by using the human frame of reference to determine how to meet a reptile’s needs, or projecting one’s own needs and preferences upon the animal. This is the type of anthropomorphism that harms reptiles, as it often leads people to ignore expert recommendations based on their own feelings.

Negative Anthropomorphism usually looks/sounds like this:

  1. “My bearded dragon is feeling ill, so I’ve been giving it snuggles to help it feel better.”
  2. “I know that the recommended temperature is x, but I feel like that’s just way too hot, so I lowered the temperature.”
  3. “I got a friend for my ball python because it was lonely. Now they cuddle all the time!”
  4. “My blue tongue skink needs a girlfriend. Anyone have a female available?”
  5. “I try to give my leopard gecko only x number of bugs per feeding, but sometimes he looks at me like he wants more, so I give him more.”
  6. “It’s cruel to only feed a snake once a month. So I feed my boa every week.”
  7. “Look how fat my crested gecko is! Isn’t he adorable?”
  8. “My tegu begs all the time whenever I’m eating dinner, so sometimes I give him some scraps. He loves pizza!”
  9. “Humans don’t usually eat or exercise as we should, and we’re just fine lol.”

Just in case it’s not clear why any of these aren’t okay, here’s a quick breakdown:

  1. There is no concrete evidence to suggest that reptiles are comforted by touch, and removing them from their heat source can weaken their immune system when they need it most. Human body heat is not an adequate replacement. If a reptile seems to be feeling unwell, the best thing to do for it is to take it to the vet.
  2. Experts make these recommendations for basking temperatures and humidity levels for a reason. Just because it’s uncomfortable for a human does not mean it’s uncomfortable for the reptile. They literally evolved to prefer these conditions.
  3. Most reptiles are not social, and for these species, adding another reptile to their enclosure is likely to cause more stress than relieve it. “Cuddling” between roommates is not a display of affection, but rather usually a competition for resources such as heat and UVB. One of the two will suffer, and both are better off in their own enclosures.
  4. While it’s true that male reptiles can experience some discomfort and agitation during breeding season as a result of their surging hormones, that is not a good reason to get another reptile so it can be its sex object—unless you’re planning on becoming a professional breeder. Just get your male a plush reptile to court instead. It’s quite effective with species such as green iguanas and bearded dragons.
  5. This is one of the big reasons why an alarmingly high percentage of pets in the US are overweight or worse. Feed them the proportions of nutrients that they need, and feed them enough to keep them in good condition. If you’re not sure what “good condition” looks like, pictures of healthy wild reptiles can be an excellent resource.
  6. Again, experts make recommendations on diet for a reason. And snakes have specifically evolved to go long periods of time between meals, and denying them this opportunity to rest between feedings will shorten their lifespan.
  7. Overweight pets aren’t cute—they’re abused.
  8. Humans are omnivores, and we are one of the most proficient omnivores on the planet. We can eat almost anything without dying or becoming seriously ill, and granted, there are plenty of things that we eat on a regular basis that we probably shouldn’t. There is no reason to give human junk food to a reptile, and this will make them more likely to suffer from related illnesses. It also risks “spoiling” the animal’s appetite for more nutritious foods.
  9. Does this really require explanation??

This behavior usually stems from prioritizing self-interest over doing what’s best for the animal, and the anthropomorphism is the justification. Furthermore, it’s good to love your pet reptile, but make sure that “love” isn’t actually killing them. “Killing with kindness” can definitely apply to keeping reptiles.

Neutral Anthropomorphism

Neutral Anthropomorphism is form of anthropomorphism that doesn’t significantly harm the reptile, but doesn’t significantly benefit it either. This is irritating is many in the hobby, and is often met with grumbling and protests akin to “how dare you,” but at the end of the day it doesn’t really affect the animal as long as its husbandry requirements are being met. In fact, it often just creates more work for the keeper.

Neutral anthropomorphism usually looks/sounds like this:

  1. “Dollhouse” style enclosures with miniature furniture
  2. Monogrammed blankets
  3. Fleecy hammocks
  4. Pet costumes
  5. “My leopard gecko loves his little toy lizard buddy!”
  6. “My blue tongue skink is always begging to be let out. He loves free roam time!”
  7. “I handle my boa every day. It’s the best part of his day!”
  8. “My bearded dragon loves watching me play video games.”

Much of what can be considered Neutral Anthropomorphism is debatable as to how much it can actually harm reptiles. There are certainly some concerns that accompany common approaches from the Neutral Anthropomorphistic perspective:

  1. “Dollhouse” style enclosures do not mimic the conditions of a reptile’s natural habitat, and use surfaces that do not encourage a beneficial temperature gradient. They also may not perform well exposed to weathering elements such as humidity and UVB.
  2. It is not known whether reptiles actually appreciate soft items in their enclosures. They have demonstrated preferences between hard surfaces and more cushioned surfaces, like loose substrate, but further preference has yet to be proven.
  3. Fabric accessories in a reptile enclosure are highly prone to bacterial buildup, and must be washed and disinfected frequently to maintain good hygiene.
  4. Most reptiles demonstrate varying degrees of displeasure/annoyance with the weight and restrictions of wearing pet costumes. This can also apply to harnesses for outdoor “walking.”
  5. Plastic or plush toys and accessories may introduce toxic VOCs into the enclosure. Admittedly, some toys have actual benefits for some reptiles. Plush reptile-looking toys, for example, are known to help ease mating urges for male reptiles during breeding season.
  6. “Free roam time,” whether indoor or outdoor, is known to be a beneficial form of exercise for reptiles, as long the animal is well supervised and protected from predators. However, it can also be a stressful experience for some individuals.
  7. Handling is more stressful for some reptiles than others, depending on individual preference and species.
  8. Keeping reptiles out for handling for several hours at a time can negatively affect their health, as it can get in the way of thermoregulation and healthy metabolism. However, short excursions are not harmful as long as the animal is not significantly stressed.

Note that if carried out poorly, Neutral Anthropomorphism can quickly become Negative Anthropomorphism. But as long as the points of good reptile husbandry (temperature gradient, humidity levels, enrichment, space requirements, etc.) are being met without being minimized, ultimately this comes down to keeper preference.

Positive Anthropomorphism

Positive Anthropomorphism is the form of anthropomorphism that actually promotes better care for reptiles. People using Positive Anthropomorphism will, for lack of having better words, assign human terms or emotions to voice a legitimate need for their reptile.

Positive Anthropomorphism may sound like this:

  • “I’m worried that my tegu is bored in his enclosure when I can’t let him out. What can I use to keep him occupied during the day?”
  • “I have a lazy tortoise. What can I do to encourage him to be more active?”
  • “My corn snake uses every inch of his current enclosure, even though it’s the minimum recommended size I read in the ReptiFiles care sheet. Does he need a bigger enclosure?”
  • “My turtle doesn’t seem like himself lately. Could he be sick?”

Positive Anthropomorphism can raise an owner’s awareness to basic husbandry issues, as well as bring attention to changes in their health. And when a reptile’s basic needs are met, it often leads to next-level husbandry practices, such as enrichment.

Assuming that reptiles do not have needs beyond the basics of heat, humidity, UVB, etc., or relying on outdated reptile husbandry approaches which minimize these needs, is ignoring modern science. As the reptile industry gains more experience with various species, and herpetologists, veterinarians, and other researchers investigate reptiles more in-depth, we discover that there is a lot we’ve gotten wrong in the past, and there are better, more effective methods that we should be using.

Enclosure size is a common example, which is why there is a general push among reptile husbandry experts and specialists for larger “minimum” enclosure size standards, particularly in the US. But outside of general reptile husbandry, there is mounting evidence that reptiles are intelligent, sentient creatures. Many keepers as well as researchers have observed signs of intelligence such as:

  • Recognizing the voice of their keeper.
  • Being trained to associate tapping on the glass with an imminent food offering.
  • Learning to associate the sight of a pet store feeder insect bag with food.
  • Blind individuals memorizing the layout of their enclosure.
  • Remembering specific spots where they’ve found food before.
  • Tolerating handling with their keepers, but not with strangers.
  • Being trained to give “consent” for handling.
  • Solving simple puzzles.

Reptiles also possess their own emotions. These emotions are not the same as ours, but they are present:

  • Irritation/Discomfort — Example: Shaking its head to be rid of a fly.
  • Pain. Example: Absence of appetite or movement when injured.
  • Pleasure. Example: Demonstrating a distinct preference for some foods over others.
  • Excitement. Example: Demonstrating anticipation for future pleasure when seeing food or a potential mate.
  • Contentment. Example: Basking in the perfect spot or having a good stretch.

They even have individual personalities, for crying out loud! These “personalities” vary from individual to individual, even within the same species and when the animals are kept in a similar manner.

Finally, we can’t neglect the bond between reptile and human. The reptiles themselves may not care, but anthropomorphization is our attempt as humans to bond with the animals in our lives. We *need* to feel love for the animals in our care, and this shouldn’t be discouraged. This bond is often critical for creating the motivation needed to perform routine, mundane care tasks such as misting, weight checks, and putting together nutritious meals. And it opens the door toward understanding and progressing the finer points of reptile husbandry.

Summary

Depending on the characteristic in question and the context, anthropomorphism can also have a negative, neutral, or positive effect. How can you tell the difference between the three types?

If the result improves the welfare of the animal and encourages closer replication of the conditions of its natural environment (ex: more space, enrichment activities), then it’s probably a good thing and falls under Positive Anthropomorphism.

If the result does not promote the welfare of the animal and encourages further deviation from the conditions of the reptile’s natural habitat, then it’s probably a bad thing and falls under Negative Anthropomorphism.

If the result does not significantly improve or worsen the reptile’s husbandry and welfare, then that’s Neutral Anthropomorphism.

You may have noticed a pattern here. It all boils down to: “Could what I want to do harm my reptile?”

In determining whether a decision may harm your reptile, compare it against the requirements of the 5 Provisions of Animal Welfare:

  1. Good Nutrition: Provide ready access to fresh water, as well as a healthy, species-appropriate diet.
  2. Good Environment: Provide an enclosure that closely mimics the conditions of the animal’s natural habitat.
  3. Good Physical Health: Prevent or rapidly treat disease and injury, and foster good muscle tone and organ function.
  4. Natural Behavior: Provide sufficient space and appropriate décor to encourage wild-like behaviors.
  5. Good Mental Health: Provide safe and species-appropriate opportunities to have positive experiences.

If the decision that you’re considering fits within these Provisions, then it will benefit your reptile. If it does not, then it will not benefit your reptile.

Conclusion

The problem with stigmatizing anthropomorphism is that some people who pride themselves on their “advanced” understanding of reptiles use it as an argument to unconsciously obstruct progress in the industry. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • “Reptiles don’t care about how much space they have as long as they can move around a bit, thermoregulate, and have enough to eat.”
  • “Reptiles don’t have emotions.”
  • “They’re just reptiles – they don’t care what you put in their viv.”

And so instead of helping, ignorant cries of “anthropomorphism!” — much like “witchcraft!” — can obstruct any improvement in our understanding of reptiles and their husbandry. We are so afraid of being accused of anthropomorphism in our various forums and communities that we have reduced these beings to stupid animals that don’t think and don’t need anything but the bare necessities of survival. (Mechanomorphism: The treatment of something, such as a living creature, as operating mechanically or to be fully accounted for according to the laws of physical science.) This has justified harmful practices such as surgery without postoperative pain medication in the past, and minimalist keeping in the modern day.

Mounting evidence from both keepers and researchers is showing that the more a reptile is stimulated (trained), the smarter and more capable it gets. We do the same thing by sending our children to school to “train” them to become a functional adult in our society. Without education, humans are pretty dumb too—and you don’t have to go very far to find evidence to support that.

If we want to move forward into a world where the 5 Provisions are commonplace and reptiles thrive, we need to let go of knee-jerk accusations of “anthropomorphism!!” and open our minds to a future where reptiles and their natural habitats are the ones which set the standard, not humans.

bearded dragon with great reptile husbandry demonstrating gaping - in reptile anthropomorphism terms, that's "smiling"

That’s it for the 5 Provisions series!

We hope that you have been inspired to raise the bar in your own reptile husbandry this year. Please help us make 2020 the best decade yet for the reptile hobby by sharing this article on social media, along with the hashtag #5Provisions and your own personal commitment to better reptile husbandry.

If you haven’t read/listened to the whole 5 Provisions series yet, here are the links to the other articles:

1. Is Your Reptile Husbandry Up to Standard? — Expanding on the 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare

2. Do You Use Reptile Racks? If You’re Not a Breeder, Read This

3. SHOWDOWN! What is the BEST Type of Reptile Enclosure?

…..Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m never going to type the word “anthropoasdalksjdfal” ever again.


References:

Definition: Reptile | Merriam-Webster

Reptiles | Scholastic

Environmental enrichment and cognitive complexity in reptiles and amphibians: Concepts, review, and implications for captive populations | Gordon M.Burghardt

Spatial considerations for captive snakes | Clifford Warwick, Phillip Arena, and Catrina Steedman

Bio-Activity and the Theory of Wild Re-Creation | John Courteney-Smith (affiliate link)

Are Reptiles Intelligent? with Reptelligence | The Animals at Home Podcast

Can You Train a Snake? with Reptelligence | The Animals at Home Podcast

Anthropomorphism: An unhealthy trend | Scott Borden

Summer Musings Part II: Anthropomorphism and Reptiles | Anapsid.org

3 Comments

  1. Great read. I’ve been noticing a tendency to resort to claims of “anthropomorphism” as a way of quickly shutting down discussion.

  2. I don’t even have a reptile, but I thought your points were really interesting. I do feel like sometimes breeders play up the anthropomorphism argument to justify bare (but cost-effective!) enclosures.

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